Why FPPC Should Expose Online Campaign Trolls


internet trollThere is simply no logical or ethical reason to oppose a proposal, pending before the Fair Political Practices Commission, that would require candidates and campaigns to identify the people and amounts of money they pay to post propaganda online

As FPPC chairwoman Ann Ravel noted, the idea is to ensure that the public is aware when online content “is masquerading as someone’s opinion as opposed to paid opinion.”

Frankly, we don’t understand how anyone can make a case against this. The suggestion by some that the rule is unnecessary, unenforceable and overly broad makes no sense.

It should be a simple matter for a candidate or campaign to list, in their spending reports, the people they’re paying to post messages on their behalf or against an opponent. Moreover, since he’s being paid, it seems a simple matter for the troll to report to the campaign where he posted his pearls of wisdom.

SutterBrownIf the poster behind Gov. Jerry Brown’s dog Sutter is exposed by the regulation, as our friend Steve Maviglio has worried, so what? What a stupid argument.

Why Maviglio and Flash are in the sack together The FPPC’s regulations should always seek to provide maximum exposure of the people, forces and resources at work in political communications. Anonymity is no virtue in the public square.

The political process evolved from handbills and speeches to door-knockers, precinct walkers, campaign rallies and television ads. It has evolved once again to include the Internet, for campaign ads, blast-emails, creative use of Facebook and Twitter, website commenting and other forms of online messaging. To keep up with the change in technological forms, FPPC regulations must evolve as well.

Calbuzz has spoken on this issue on more than one occasion, arguing that as voters increasingly get their political information from online sources, they need to know if what they’re reading is bought and paid for.

Maviglio and our pal Jon Fleischman – who, by the way, also run, advise and consult on campaigns – have said they’re worried that regulating online communications will have a chilling effect on free speech, requiring campaigns, for example, to tell people who might be paid for a weekend of precinct walking that they can’t use social media.

sock-puppetThat’s hogwash. People who work in and for campaigns are either paid workers or volunteers. If they’re paid personnel, their payments and the services paid for should be disclosed – whether they’re part-time office workers or full-time website operators who give discounts on ad rates in exchange for boosting a candidate or cause.

We’d go even farther: Once the FPPC’s online interface has been updated and redesigned — a project Ravel has promised — campaigns ought to be required to disclose their payments to online mouth organs in real time, within 24 hours, not in quarterly or monthly reports to the Secretary of State. That’s the only way to keep on top of the immediacy of Internet communications.

Freedom for all, from sock puppets We cede commitment to freedom of speech to no one. But as insiders in the online business, we also see the massive potential for unscrupulous operators to use the Internet to disseminate propaganda posing as spontaneous citizen opinion.

There is no more important issue facing the FPPC than the challenge of staying abreast of the changing forms of political communications to ensure that the public has complete information about the people running for office and the forces behind them.

Bottom line: It’s time for the FPPC to join the 21st Century.

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There are 12 comments for this post

  1. avatar LarryBush says:

    As one who blogs (CitiReport.com), I concur that there is no rational basis for failing to fully disclose payments for communications intended to influence the public dialogue, including payments to bloggers, those who post on various outlets (perhaps under false identifies), and all the rest.
    My only add-on to your point is that I think this rule should also apply to using government funds to blog or pay bloggers, or to hide an identify to perform as a sock puppet, and this should be readily identifiable.
    The political arena is not just about campaign that use campaign funds, but also government elected officials and offices who decide to run parallel “outreach” programs, sometimes using false names, in support of a boss or a position that is facing public scrutiny. They should not be exempt.

  2. avatar tonyseton says:

    It’s not only about the money spent but the character of the campaign that they would try to deceive and manipulate the public.
    Also, all political expenditures should be reported within 24 hours. Why not?

  3. avatar David Salaverry says:

    I’m not sure what grave and dangerous evil the author is seeking to mitigate. But the cure seems worse than the disease, by far. The reality is that a new ruling WOULD have a chilling effect. I’m against an anonymous internet and always post with my true name, but we don’t need FPPC regs.

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      David — If you read some of the earlier Calbuzz posts on this subject that are linked in today’s piece, you’ll find examples of deliberately devious use of the Internet by campaigns and candidates. We want to crack down on them, not on bloggers and others who use the Internet as a platform for their personal views.

    • avatar Randy Lyman says:

      Cure worse than the disease? Are you serious? The Koch brothers laundered $11 million dollars to swing the last election in a way that would have profited themselves by stifling free speech and nailing away at the coffin of education and health care, and you don’t see the danger? As the article points out, the technology of campaign communications has evolved far beyond handbills and speeches; this is a good thing (I work in social media on political and other campaigns myself), but what has been lost is the editorial filter that used to ensure some sort of quality control on the news we read and hear. I’m not arguing that news should only come from “designated” or “official” sources, not even remotely, but at least the editorial function even in a free press includes (or used to) quality control in reporting and maintenance of the firewall between editorial and advertising content. That wall is all but non-existent today, and regulations like the current FPPC proposal are exactly what’s needed. Words are a powerful medium of persuasion or there would not be billion-dollar industries built around using them for that. But if A writes something nice about B, it is crucial for readers to know if A really believes it or B merely paid A to say it, because the second undermines any credibility the words might have purporting to represent “truth” or “reality.” Instead it’s just another form of money laundering, even if the law doesn’t call it that. In the wake of the $11 million, Chair Ravel promised the FPPC would crack down on campaign money laundering and anonymous big-money contributions, and I’m glad to see they’ve kept their promise. The current proposal is an important step forward.

    • avatar chuckmcfadden says:

      If disclosing who they are, if they are paid and by whom would have a chilling effect, California political types are far wimpier than I have been led to believe. Those opposing the idea seem to me to be fond of the under-the-rock brand of politics. We don’t want to confuse the voters with too much information, and besides, we’re oh so sensitive.

  4. avatar Mark Paul says:

    You say the argument against the rule make no sense. Yet you answer none of the questions I raised here: http://www.thecaliforniafix.com/thecaliforniafix/2012/4/23/ann-ravels-scarlet-letter.html . Sad to see fellow newsies standing with those working to undermine the First Amendment.

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Mark, your complaints are out of date. The FPPC, after listening to Calbuzz and others, is not targeting bloggers but campaigns and candidates.

  5. avatar thetruthsquad says:

    So glad that Calbuzz writers could park their golf cart for a few minutes to pen this, having not attended the last meeting of the FPPC nor apparently reviewed the latest language of the regulation — and after thinking they have carved themselves out an exemption in the regulation for themselves by exempting bloggers who accept ads at “regularly published rates.” Perhaps spending a couple of days actually working on a campaign might actually give them the insight of why this regulation, as written, is a disaster. Here are a few reasons.

    1. EVERY Tweet, Facebook post, blog or any social media entry would trigger reporting to the FPPC if not done by the campaign’s “in house” staff (whatever that is, since it’s not defined). That means that every time a campaign vendor posts something, they’d have to file a form. Imagine, if you will, the hundreds of tweets posted during an hour-long depate by those vendors. Or even a photo uploaded by a someone who worked on a campaign for a day at a college campus.That would trigger reporting. And that would result in an avalanche of unnecessary paperwork, and to what end?

    2. Anytime a subvendor posted a comment like this on a website, or on a news website, they’d have to file paperwork — whether it was under their real name or a fake screen name. Please tell me how the FPPC will enforce that?

    3. At the August meeting, neither the staff nor the Chair would put their finger on who they actually wanted to regulate, and could not agree on the definition of “in-house staff” as outlined in the definition. Which makes you wonder: just who are they trying to regulate? The industry has matured, and there’s precious little evidence of instances where bloggers were paid for their opinion, and that information was not known.

    4. The language calls for a disclaimer on each post “posted in a conspicuous manner along with the posted content in each instance of the content appearing on the Internet or other digital platform.” Commission said that would mean a profile, but that’s not what the language says at all.

    5. If a law firm files an FPPC complaint during a campaign and tweets it, it would have to report itself for supplying web content. Again, another overreach by the FPPC, since it’s pretty clear that it’s not opinion, but a statement of fact that’s easily identified with a campaign.

    6. And here’s something even calbuzz might want to think about: if a social media outlet offers an off-the-rate-card advertising deal, then it too would be included in the reporting, because it would not be a “regularly published rate.” Rut row, Phil & Jerry, each one of your posts will have to be reported if you offer advertisers such deals.

    7. The regulation is silent on the issue of socialbots, the fastest-growing use of social media by campaigns.

    It’s been nearly two years since the Chair proposed this regulation, and the lawyers still don’t have the language right. Now the commission seems intent on denying adequate public discussion by adopting a version of this at its next meeting in less than 30 days. The FPPC should do this right, not fast.

    (Steven Maviglio)

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Dear Mr. “TruthSquad” — for the record, Calbuzz does not have a golf cart. But if you’d like to buy one for us, we would be happy to accept. As for offering an off-the-rate-card deal to a campaign, only a sleazeball web site seeking to hide its support for the “advertiser” would do such a thing, As long as the FPPC targets campaigns and candidates, bloggers have nothing to fear. Unless they’re in the employ of some candidate or campaign. In which case, payments to them should be disclosed. Don’t you agree?

    • avatar thetruthsquad says:

      It isn’t just “sleazeball” websites (or news outlets) that offer off-the-rate-card deals for advertising. Having bought a bunch of political advertising over the years, I can tell you that major media outlets as well as online marketers offer deals to get your business that are discounted below what would be required in the regulation above.

      Just who is the FPPC targeting? As noted above, even they don’t know. They haven’t defined “in-house staff” and there was lots of back-and-forth between staff and commission about just who they were regulating.

      As for payments from campaigns, I’ve blogged for multiple campaigns. All those payments were reported, as are all payments to firms that handle social media services to campaigns. It’s not just a guy in pajamas doing this any more; payments for social media are expensive and hence reported. Campaigns have grown up, and that’s why nearly all are reported. Still waiting for the FPPC or you to provide, let’s say, just 25 examples of the millions of tweets/Facebook postings/etc that were paid for by campaigns but not reported.

  6. avatar panterazero says:

    @Randy — you do, I assume, refer to the $11 million that got cue-sticked from Arizona with a bank shot off Virginia to land in California’s corner pocket? That only blew up because…let’s just say, some people who would use the Internet for nefarious purposes have a reliably hazy grasp of the way(s) it really works. But an adversary’s persistent lack of knowledge, while amusing, is a weak rail to lean on, and the FPPC of today needs to do a MUCH better job of following the money.

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